‘Big Food’ at the UN table: A recipe for big waste?

Food corporations’ voluntary agreements and charitable food donations cannot sufficiently reduce food waste.

Crates of surplus food collected from supermarkets sit stacked at a food-waste charity's warehouse on February 27, 2019 in London, England [Jack Taylor/Getty Images]

We all know that guilty feeling when we realise we have let something go mouldy, and hastily move it from the refrigerator to the rubbish bin. We have seen food recall notices at grocery stores following manufacturing errors. It is easy to assume such mistakes and mishaps are the main causes of food waste. But food waste is not only caused by forgetful consumers and accidents in food supply chains. In fact, food systems research has shown that food waste is a core, and even profitable, feature of food systems today. But as it is so often the case with environmental hazards, the profit motive trumps preventive action, and the issue of food waste is only superficially addressed.

Industrial food systems create industrial-scale food waste. Currently, up to half of the food produced globally is never eaten, representing a whopping 8-10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. None of us wants to think that our food systems might be designed to be wasteful, especially given that the world’s resources are being depleted at an alarming rate, and that up to a quarter of our fellow humans are going hungry. The abundance of calories produced by our food systems (in the United States, up to 4,000 calories per day for each person) presents a glaring contradiction to the scarcity and hunger manufactured alongside it.

For decades, food companies have been donating their excess to charity in an effort to resolve this contradiction, but neither food waste nor hunger has been significantly decreased as a result of these efforts. Is the answer, then, just to urge companies to redistribute more surplus, and perhaps tweak their supply chain processes a little harder?

The messaging of this year’s United Nations’ Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) would suggest as much. The summit, held in New York on September 23, envisaged setting the stage for “global food systems transformation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]”.

SDG Target 12.3 aims to halve global food waste by 2030. Achieving this goal would require eliminating waste from farm to fork, but solutions on offer tend to be focused on “downstream” consumer and retail food waste rather than “upstream” waste prevention in the food supply chain.

The UNFSS continued this trend. The summit’s Action Track 2, titled Shift to Sustainable Consumption Patterns, focussed partially on the issue of food waste. But it stated “eliminating wasteful patterns of consumption” and “building consumer demand for sustainably produced food”, as the main goals in this arena, rather than addressing root causes of wastage.

Investigative research and campaign group Feedback Global’s executive director, Carina Millstone, blames the summit’s shortcomings around the issue of food waste and the food system in general on the disproportionate role corporations played in its organisation.

Millstone was part of the food waste working group of Action Track 2, but she says she realised early on that the group was dominated by a “handful of organisations intent on promoting voluntary, business initiatives and citizen action for food waste above all else”. Like hundreds of others that boycotted the summit, Feedback Global, which has worked on food waste issues since 2013, stepped aside “as it became clear the recommendations would skirt around identifying and addressing the root causes of food waste – profit-driven corporate agribusiness”.

Research has already identified these root causes. Several studies have shown that large-scale food waste is an inevitable outcome of the competition, speed, and growth-driven market mechanisms which rely on overproduction to generate profit at the expense of people and the environment.

At the farm level, research by Feedback Global showed how unfair trading practices and power concentration in food systems allow major agribusinesses to transfer the risks and costs of food waste to farmers. The consolidation of the manufacturing and retail sectors ensures that large food corporations control the conditions of trade, including prices, aesthetics, cancellation and volumes. Farmers, especially those growing monocultures, are therefore pressured to meet strict buyers’ requirements, and overproduce.

Despite all this, the UNFSS showed a preference for public-private partnerships employing a voluntary “target-measure-act” approach to food waste reduction over regulatory intervention that can more effectively tackle food waste, but that may threaten profitability. While we applaud companies that are making investments in reducing waste across their supply chains, the UNFSS’s limited framing of food waste downplayed the scale of transformation and solutions needed to achieve a genuinely sustainable and fair food system.

That so much food is being wasted while so many are going hungry is an undeniable sign that our economies of food are lacking justice. But it is misguided to suggest the problems of hunger and food waste can simply be resolved if we invest more in food redistribution.

The UNFSS presented the redistribution of surplus food as a “game-changing solution” to food waste, with the Global Foodbanking Network positioned as exemplifying best practice in charitable donation.

However, promoting the global expansion of charitable solutions like food banks cannot fix the underlying economic inequalities that produce hunger. In what food security expert Andrew Fisher calls the “hunger industrial complex”, food waste, hunger and corporate interests collide to maintain the status quo. Beyond the laudable efforts of thousands of volunteers, extensive corporate sponsorship of the global expansion of food banking hints that this model is not about transforming and preventing wasteful systems, but primarily managing, perpetuating and even justifying excess.

Moreover, research shows that food charities in many countries often struggle to handle large-scale donations due to a lack of sufficient storage, cooling and transport infrastructure.

As the global advocacy group This Is Rubbish highlights in its Plenty To Share campaign, tackling root causes of food waste and hunger means tackling global wealth inequalities while preventing further corporate control over our food sources.

Emily Mathiesen of FIAN International notes that “[the UNFSS] overlooked structural inequalities and human rights abuses that perpetuate food insecurity and hunger”.

What would a genuinely fair and sustainable food system transition look like? Many farmers, Indigenous groups and social movements who boycotted the UNFSS are calling for policy mechanisms that support diverse and smaller-scale food production and stronger Right to Food legislation. Foregrounding the values of agroecology and food sovereignty, such policy envisages a circular food economy that protects farmer livelihoods and designs waste out, while valuing food as a right rather than a commodity.

We celebrate the inclusion of regenerative food futures, particularly agroecology and food sovereignty, in the UNFSS’s messaging. Thousands contributed to pre-summit consultations with alternative food system visions that prioritise ecological boundaries, equitable food access, and democratic participation. But these must not become corporate greenwashing. We join other scholars, activists, and food actors in challenging the inertia and narrow lenses that prevent governments and businesses from addressing waste and hunger at their roots. We hope that future international dialogues will do this.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.